What Was Performed at Elvis Presley’s Service?

The hand-written order of service for Elvis Presley’s funeral

The hand-written order of service for Elvis Presley’s funeral

It’s been 42 years since Elvis Aaron Presley’s death of a massive prescription drug overdose in the master bath of Graceland. With his demise came a need to understand the whole arc of his life: from being a dazzling agent of cultural transformation to succumbing to raging addictions and utter patheticness. It doesn’t take much research to be reminded that Presley was a mercurial, violent, paranoid man at the end. His lifelong relationships with women and girls (he started grooming Priscilla when she was fourteen) were manipulative, abusive and dysfunctional. Today he would be an easy “Me Too” casualty.

On August 18th, 1977, Presley’s father and agent Col. Tom Parker staged an elaborate Memphis funeral for friends and the 10,000 fans lining the highway with motorcade and white Cadillac cortege, all supervised by the Tennessee National Guard. We might think Lady Di’s death initiated the blanket of bundled flowers on the ground in homage, but Presley got all that, and good gospel music from his best collaborators and backup singers. Vernon Presley and gospel base singer J. D. Sumner collaborated on the order of service. You can appreciate what was played for the funeral here, here and here. The chapel committal tipped in a very religious direction; Presley was a man of faith, and —this is true—loved nothing more than to sing gospel with friends until dawn. The same folks serenaded his casket at the end.

Presley’s legacy, critics mostly agree, is that he stood inside the music of black Americans, and presented it to a previously unreceptive, skeptical, prejudiced white audience. “The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened,” said Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. Presley remains however a man of of myriad shadings and contradictions. And we’re so much more thoughtful today on questions regarding sexism and cultural appropriation. One man’s death opens the door to it all. But there’s still the music. And the best bio on all this is Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.

Amy Cunningham